As part of our #AdopteesAre Campaign, we sat with several Asian American adoptees and talked about their experiences and some common stereotypes and prejudices that adoptees face. Anna Stollman is a Linguistics and Anthropology student at the University of Pittsburgh.
Mia Forbes: Can you tell me a little bit about your adoption story, Anna?
Anna: Yeah, so I was born in Chengzhou, which is a city in Hunan Province, China in 1999. My birthday is listed somewhere around February, but it's not exactly certain when I was born. Then I was adopted around 10 months later in December of 1999 by a family who lived in Pennsylvania in the United States who were White.
Mia: That's so interesting! So growing up, did you ever feel like your racial identity as an Asian American ever affected how people interacted with you as an adoptee?
Anna: Yeah, I think it definitely did. I grew up in a mostly White community, so there weren't really any adults in my life who were Asian. This meant I didn't really have anyone around who looked like me other than my sister. It caused a lot of confusion for me internally, especially early on. When I was young, I specifically remember talking to my sister one time and asking, “Are we White or Black?” We didn't know, we weren't sure because we didn’t understand what it meant to be Asian. We've always known we were adopted from China, but the idea of being Asian was very foreign to us. This is especially because Asians aren't really talked about in America’s mainstream culture as a race much. Racial issues are looked at really black and white. People would always be really surprised by my last name or when they saw my parents too. They generally assumed things about me because of how I looked. Then they would be really surprised when they found out that I was adopted due to their assumptions, which often led them to ask so many questions about it.
Mia: I can understand that, was there ever a point where you felt like people were digging a little too much, or you felt uncomfortable with the questions that they were asking?
Anna: Yeah, I've felt that way a lot of times. When people encounter something that surprises them, they feel entitled to dig more sometimes because they need to know things. They don't think about privacy. People would ask a lot of questions including, “Do you know your birth parents? Do you want to search for them? Did they abandon you because you were a girl?” and so on. They were really personal questions that weren't really appropriate to say, but they felt like they had permission to say them anyways.
Mia: Yeah, I got those questions growing up too. It's not easy at all.
Anna: You feel uncomfortable and unsure about how to answer, especially if it's your friend's parents or your parent's friends. Then there’s even more pressure added to the situation because you can't necessarily say, “I don't feel comfortable answering that,” because as kids we often feel like we're not allowed to say no.
Mia: Yeah, I feel that too. There are a lot of misconceptions about adoption in the world and in society right now, what are your experiences with stereotypes, prejudice, and even some discrimination as an adoptee?
Anna: Well, I work as a camp counselor. So, I'm pretty open about the fact that I'm a Chinese adoptee. One time, I specifically remember one of them said, “Oh, I'm so sorry that your parents didn't want you.” She was six years old so I guess she didn’t really understand what she was saying, but the situation was still uncomfortable.
People either assume that “Our biological parents just didn't want us,” or, “They couldn’t take care of us,” but the reality of it is there's a lot of reasons we were put up for adoption. Yeah, I mean maybe we were unwanted, but it may have also been because they were just too poor and already had five kids or perhaps the decision was influenced by the one-child policy. It really depends on the time. People like to promote one particular narrative of what an adoption story is or should be and it usually sounds like, “Well, your parents wanted you to have a better life, so they put you up for adoption and then you came to this home.”
However, for a lot of adoptees, that's not the reality of things.
Sometimes they [adoptees] end up in an adoptive home that's not good. There are even cases of child trafficking or coercion. People want it to be this heartwarming story, but sometimes it’s not always like that. They look at it as if our story ends at adoption, but the reality is that our adoption story continues for the rest of our lives.
Also, I really hate the word whitewashed, but it gets used a lot for Asian adoptees. It’s a really screwed up idea because what does it mean to act Asian or to act White? Why do you have to check off certain boxes to have a certain ethnic identity if that's who you were born as genetically? It’s the idea that “You were raised by White people, so you don't have any real connection with the culture.”
Mia: Yeah, and it's hard because we can't control what we were brought up with. So, when people put these labels on us, it causes confusion in how we see ourselves and how we identify as developing adolescents.
Anna: I definitely agree, especially when you're growing up and trying to fit in with other kids. It leads us to think, “Oh, I can turn it into a joke, and say things like, ‘Yeah, I'm so whitewashed. Haha, I'm not that Asian.’” I remember other Asian kids who were super high achievers or going into STEM, especially in middle school. I mean I did pretty well in school too, but I wasn't going into STEM. A large reason was that I wanted to be different. I felt like I had to differentiate myself from the other Asians, so my White friends would like me more at the time.
Yeah, especially for adoptees, there's this pressure to avoid the stereotypes as much as possible. All of which is another way of boxing yourself in because you're still limiting yourself just because of what other people might think.
Mia: Yeah, we care about what other people think as anyone else might. People, whether they’re adoptees or non-adoptees, should be able to be who they are, despite what others think.
So, why do you think that all these issues regarding adoption, such as stereotypes and the discrimination of adoptees, still exist?
Anna: Social norms take a really long time to change. They tend to stick around even after the main things that cause social norms disappear. So I think a lot of adoptees, at least for the first wave of international adoption, were adopted from really poor countries or they were refugee orphans, especially in the mid-1900s. There was this sense of, “I can help these poor, homeless children find a nice home and better opportunities.” It was seen as a really uplifting and selfless act, which it is. However, when adoptees become adults and start talking about their experiences, whether positive or negative, oftentimes there’s backlash. This is because oftentimes their perspective and experiences don’t fit with the story that people want to hear and goes against the super positive attitude around adoption that has been around for so long.
People feel very strongly about doing good things, especially adoptive parents. I think a lot of adoptive parents sometimes feel attacked by adoptees who speak out about more negative aspects of adoption, or at least their own experiences. I know we're not the majority of the population. We're a pretty, maybe not small group, but we're smaller than the group of people who are born biologically. It’s because of this fact that there’s such a small population of adoptees that a lot of people don't have as much exposure and knowledge surrounding adoption. People don't always know how to be sensitive about adoption. So, a lot of times when adoptees talk about these issues, it comes off like we’re being ungrateful. People generally don’t understand the experiences of adoptees, or try not to, and is therefore, why we want to talk about these issues within our communities,
Mia: Once people get past that and take the steps to understand where we're coming from, I feel the less likely it will be for insensitive comments to be made. Why do you think it's so important to address these issues?
Anna: I mean I'm obviously very biased, but there are a lot of us even though we're a minority. It's likely that at some point in a person’s life they'll probably encounter at least one adoptee, and if they don't, I'll be very surprised. It's just important to know about issues like this in general.
It's part of building empathy, while also understanding other people and learning about different perspectives. It's also important because a lot of adoptees are really damaged growing up by the assumptions people make that are often based on how they look and how their parents look. I have friends who are also adopted that get mistaken for being their family's foreign exchange student. The more we talk about our feelings and experiences as adoptees, the more people will realize that, “There's a lot of people out there who are in these situations,” and they hopefully won't assume as much. Yeah, I would hope that the next generation of adoptees won't go through some of the unpleasant experiences I had growing up.
Mia: I completely agree, especially for the sake of future adoptees. By creating awareness, we set the stage for others to develop empathy and understanding around what adoptees experience. People often make assumptions when they aren’t familiar with various aspects and concepts in life, which then leads to many of the misconceptions that we have today. Where do you think or feel that stems from?
Anna: It probably has to do with how people like putting other groups of people in boxes because it's easier for them that way. They don't have to think about people as individuals. You see that with how people treat other people who are different from them in terms of race, class, or gender. So, I think that because adoptees break a lot of those boxes by not acting how people may think our race typically acts and how our families aren't who they think they may typically be. It's hard for people to wrap their heads around. We break the labels that they created in their head, which can make them uncomfortable because they don't necessarily understand who we are and what we’ve lived through. It's very easy to act insensitively or discriminatory when you don't understand. It just comes from not understanding the adoptee experience and making assumptions about it.
Mia: Oh yeah, when people start to understand the adoptee experience more I’d hope there will be an overall improvement in how adoptees are treated by the community in general.
To wrap up, what would you want adoptees or just the general Asian American community to know moving forward about these misconceptions that are in the world?
Anna: I'd like to let them know that while their comments and questions might seem minor, they can be really hurtful or uncomfortable for adoptees, especially if they're a little kid and they're hearing them [uncomfortable comments and questions] for the first time. Also, a lot of that sometimes may come from having parents who don't know how to prepare their child for uncomfortable and racial statements, comments, or questions they'll hear because they never heard them themselves. So, I'd just like people to know that you should think about what you say because that can really affect people in the adoptee community. This is especially for other Asian Americans who aren't adopted because although our life experiences and the way we grew up weren't the same as non-adoptees, that doesn't make us any less Asian.
I've heard insensitive comments and questions from both Asian Americans, White people, and other races. They try to be gatekeepers for being Asian. They'll say comments like, “Well you're not that Asian, right?” or, “You're the Whitest Asian person I know,” that really gets to me. I just want the tie between race and behavior to disappear because in reality there's not much of a connection.